October 30, 1989 - From the October, 1989 issue

James Hartl, Director of Planning for L.A. County: On Growth, Development, and Simplifying the Process

On June 6, 1989, the Board of Supervisors appointed James E. Hartl as Director of Planning for the Department of Regional Planning, an agency with a budget of over $9 million and 150 employees. Hartl joined the Department 20 years ago, and was Chief Deputy of the Department for the past five years.

What are your planning priorities as you start your new administration?

We are trying to make the operation more efficient. One of my goals is to improve the development process by looking at the red tape and requirements of our process and streamlining them. Applicants should get to their day of judgement as quickly as possible. After all, time is money for builders.

I'm very concerned about affordable housing. Why make people spend extra time and money—let them get to the decision maker as expeditiously as possible. We must plan for the 1.5 million people living in the unincorporated County, but we should try to control the bureaucracy as much as possible.

Is the unincorporated population shrinking due to annexation and incorporation?

No, actually, it’s stayed pretty stable over the years. There is such a great deal of development occurring in the unincorporated areas that the population remains pretty stable. Incorporations have occurred and will continue to occur, but there is still a large area of development in the Antelope Valley and the Santa Clarita Valley.

The County continues to grow at about 100,000 people per year—much of that is natural births over deaths—and some of that location is either incorporated or annexed by other cities. We are now seeing our older single family residences developed into duplexes and fourplexes.

Is the unincorporated area ripe for development?

It depends what area we are talking about, because the County varies dramatically. Some areas are very difficult to develop such as the hillsides in Malibu, the Ventura corridor and the Santa Clarita Valley. In the Antelope Valley and its high dessert, a level terrain makes the cost of developing much less. Some areas are more sensitive to development and require a much more thorough analysis and greater review.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, for instance, we have numerous land holders who would like to develop to an urban density that is not allowed by the plan.

How will you slow that growth?

The Commission has a hearing set for January 4. We have put out an infrastructure analysis, a population report and a staff report that deals with an analysis of the 45 plan amendments. The applicants have requested 38,000 units for the area, and many of these requests are for large developments. One multi-phase developer wants to do a master plan for 1,000 units around Magic Mountain.

The Regional Planning Commission will not have a hearing on the individual plan amendments; it will be a hearing on recommendations we will make to the Commission as to land use amendments to accommodate the projected population growth.

What are your current planning efforts focusing on?

We have several priority issues. We have to currently update the housing element of the County-wide general plan. By law we are required to prepare a general plan for the entire county of Los Angeles. We prepare that although we don't have jurisdiction in the incorporated cities. The general plan was adopted by the Board in 1980 and has been subsequently updated. The housing plan discusses the need and types of housing units.

We looked at our 14 planning areas and anticipate where the development will go until the year 2010. We've allocated the employment, population and housing units into these 14 planning unit, and we are very anxious to see what happens with the 1990 census either as a course direction or a check.

We are the only agency in the County that collects from every jurisdiction the new building activity and demolition activity every month, and we use that to drive population projects for our housing units.

How is the County encouraging a jobs/housing balance?

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A job/housing balance is something we should strive for, but we can't regulate it. We can't force people to live and work in certain areas. Another issue is to go beyond a simple jobs/ housing balance and look at the types of housing for those jobs.

One of the main problems for other jurisdictions is that they have to import a great deal of their service workers from other areas because it is the only place they can afford. If you have large projects, you should be providing a variety of housing units and income types to afford them.

How does the County plan specific areas and pockets of unincorporated territory which lie between incorporated areas?

The Lennox area is a small pocket of unincorporated area adjacent to LAX where we are doing a revitalization study to include four workshops in the community. With some annexations, these pockets are not always cohesive units, but we think Lennox has its own identity.

It makes sense for us to look at the community because of the severe impacts of the noise. We started by looking at the noise projections, and we realized that no matter what we do the Lennox area is severely impacted by the airport, because it's so close to the end of the runway. We would like to come up with a way to assist the community so it can handle the impacts of the noise to improve the quality of life. We are talking about a whole range of options from acoustically treating their homes to relocating schools.

We'll get input through these community meetings and will have recommendations for an action program or revitalization report for the area. The community there is very active and vocal, though a little suspicious of government.

We are also finalizing plans for the Twin Lakes Community Plan. Twin Lakes is just north of Chatsworth on the Simi Valley Freeway. In Twin Lakes, the issue happens to be development on some old substandard lots of probably 2,000 square feet. Development has occurred, and we are looking at the issue of access. These are hillside developments on narrow streets. The final community meeting will be this month, and it will be before the Commission in early November.

One plan that we have completed and are presenting to the Commission on October 13 is the Westmont/West Athens community. It will be a community plan which will recommend a whole series of zone changes, land use changes, and action programs for an area that does not currently have a community plan. One of our other major responsibilities is to contract service for other incorporated cities to include a whole range of services—from enforcement to full planning to subdivision review.

Don't cities incorporate so that they can do their own planning?

That's a major argument which incorporated cities use to incorporate—that it is those guys downtown who never come to our community who do such a lousy job and we can do better job. But the Planning Commission goes out to all communities and we are responsive to many areas. We recently had an evening meeting in Westmont/West Athens, and we are having a hearing on the Sunshine Canyon landfill extension which is a controversial issue.

And when we go into a community plan area, we create citizen advisory groups. Our modus operandi is to have these groups work with staff during the preparation. These groups are appointed by either the staff or the board. We also have a 50 person citizens planning council which is advisory to us on county­wide issues.

How actively do you interface with the County's incorporated cities?

With the smaller cities, there is honestly little intervention. But we meet frequently with the Palmdale Planning Department to improve planning and coordination. And we are very involved with the City of Santa Clarita Valley to discuss the preparation of their general plan and our land-use amendments.

We will also talk to the City of Los Angeles about issues of mutual concern. We each have a major parcel to be developed in the wetlands in Marina Del Rey. And I think that the problems you see with Downtown and the CRA cap are really problems of communication. It just gets difficult because there are too many players involved—the City, the County, the CRA, and the CAO.

What is the philosophy of the current County Planning Commission?

I think it is a philosophy of quality growth determined on a case by case basis to make sure that the development which occurs mitigates all of the impacts. Commissioners ask, is this project compatible with the neighborhood and its density? The philosophical differences occur when they do not agree to what extent a project is compatible with the neighborhood. Several of the large-scale Malibu development discussions have been examples of that disagreement.

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